Last month, the Washington Post released an article about what happens in the brain while improvising, which included videos and studies about freestyle rappers, jazz pianists, and long-form improvisors. To put it simply, what researchers found is that while improvising, the portion of the brain in charge of creating is firing hot, and the self-monitoring portion is essentially shut off. As Reggie Watts puts it, “It’s kind of like channeling in a way.”
Watts is in such a flow state when performing his brand of improvised, abstract musical comedy that not only does he forget the song the next day after a show, he forgets it instantly when it’s finished. Which made him a particularly difficult subject for Good One, Vulture Comedy’s podcast about the writing of jokes, since his writing process is to never write anything — it’s to get out of his own way. So, we came up with a plan: He’d record a new song on the spot for the interview, and together, we’d try our best to capture what was floating around that brain of his. This was the result:
What are the pedals you used to make this song?
Basically, I have a reverb pedal called the Hall of Fame, which is a standard guitar reverb pedal, and then I have this Line 6 DL4, which is a looping pedal. I call it a linear looper just because you can only add to it, you can’t take away from it. You can’t save anything. It records up to 15 seconds and that’s kind of it. You can layer stuff, but you can’t layer too many things because the earliest things that you lay down start to lower in volume, which is handy for some effects like you heard at the end; like other things were starting to fade out the more I kept layering and layering. You have to manage what you are layering over. If I do a really strong beat and I like how strong it is and then I start adding too much on there, the beat gets weaker. You have to be conscious of those limitations.
What just happened? What went through your mind as you started?
I don’t know. I just try to find a tempo that feels good and then try to do the right amount of bars to, you know, give me enough space to generate something. It’s really pretty simple. I just start kind of messing with the effect and I start doing something vocally, and usually the sound of it will dictate what it could be. And then when I find something that I’m kind of grooving on, or it feels good as like a vibe, then I will record that and add that to the loop. So it’s just really every layer I add it’s like, “Is this what I want to add?” And then you have to commit to it. It’s fun in that way. You have to just do it right. Hopefully.
For this song, do you remember what was the thing that you were like, “This is what it is”?
Well, nah. Not really. I’m a big fan of Tamaryn, who’s a San Francisco artist who’s inspired by Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cocteau Twins. There was a moment where I was like, Oh, this is kind of Tamaryn-y. Maybe I was pulled toward that because I’m going more for vibes than necessarily a style or a genre or something. I’m listening for what it feels like. So, it felt more like, Ah, yeah, Tamaryn. Kind of a wash of slight melancholia.
Do you remember when you were like, “Oh, I can do a rap breakdown in this song?”
Oh, yeah, I remember doing that because the beat was pretty beaty. Who doesn’t like a little bit of a hip-hop simulation in there? I don’t really listen to hip-hop, but when I do hear it, I’m like, Oh, there’s a cadence that sounds familiar.
Do you remember any of the words you said or why you said them?
Eh, not really. A lot of times, it’s like going in and out of focus, like a camera lens. Sometimes there are words and they’re coherent sentences, and sometimes they’re just ideas of something that kind of sound like words, and then there are sounds that sound like words that aren’t words at all. I use gibberish to allow myself to use syllabic sounds and textures and things like that as a form of language. It was actually greatly inspired by Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins because hers was a mixture of some gibberish and I think Gaelic and English. I liked lyrics growing up, but mostly I liked the sound — the sounds of the melodies and the sounds of the syllables going together. When I heard the Cocteau Twins, I was like, Oh, you can just sing in a way that sounds like language, but it doesn’t actually have to be saying anything. In a way, you formulate your own ideas.
Can you describe your mental state when you’re performing? Is it an extreme presence or is it the opposite, like you are not conscious of what you’re doing at all?
It’s kind of like channeling in a way. The cool thing about looping is, once you lay down your basic idea, it inspires the next thing. I am listening for the next idea. It’s just being out in the ether, swimming around in something and then suddenly something appears and you just go with the impulse. With looping it’s great because it actually buys you a little bit of time. You can actually just chill for a second and go, What do I hear? It’s mostly getting out of my own way.
It’s interesting because there are those moments where you and the audience are both doing the same exact thing.
Yeah, that’s what I like about improvisation. Any good improvisation, anybody can almost feel the next idea. When I’m watching improv comedy, watching some of the greats improvise, especially the ones who forget their training a little, it’s just pure improvisation based off of chemistry. Sometimes I’ll be like, I’ll bet you — yes! I knew they were gonna go there. I knew they were gonna go there. I could feel it. I knew it was coming out. But then other times someone will just come out and give you a right hook. What? What just happened? And that’s beautiful. That’s the beauty of improvisation. Everyone is there at the same time, but someone has to pull the trigger.
When you did the Radiohead song on A Live at Central Park, was that also completely improvised?
No, I had done that idea a little bit. I remember being on stand-up nights and it was just bothering me that everybody loved Radiohead so much. I was just like, Okay, enough already, I get it. They’re very innovative. I get it. I love them, I think they’re a great band, but everybody was just like, “Radiohead, Radiohead, Radiohead.” I realized that nobody was really parodying Radiohead. Some of it is that they just thought it was un-parody-able. I was like, Well, I love Radiohead. I pretty much know the music well enough. I can capture the essence of what they’re doing and it’s not that crazy. So, I started doing that a little bit. It was just in my mind anyway. I just wanted to make fun of those guys for a little bit.
What about “Apples”? That was another one that I always wondered about?
No, I had no idea what was going to happen on that one. I said it was a song about apples and then I had no fucking idea. It’s not about apples at all. I love setting up like that. Sometimes I’ll go to great lengths to describe what you’re about to hear, or sometimes I’ll even take suggestions from the audience and then just never use any of them.
Is it really sort of in one ear and out the other?
Yeah, it’s like, “This is a song about apples.” That’s it. That’s about the extent of it. Then I just laid down something. It was like, Oh, that’s a really nice baseline and it definitely evokes a certain type of melody. Then, I just got lucky that the words were just being very fluid at that point. So, ideas that I had been thinking about relationships and what does that mean to be human beings and where we’re at in this modern day and what is a relationship? All those types of things just kind of came out.
What influence did drugs have on how you treat your comedy?
I had many incredible experiences on psychedelics — LSD and mushrooms — and a lot of amazing experiences on Robitussin. And marijuana of course. Not so much with the synthetics. I tried a little bit of cocaine, but I was like, Eh, it’s like doing a bunch of shots of espresso. Ecstasy was great the first two times and then it just was diminishing returns, and I was like, Nah, this is stupid. Too chemical-feeling. Having had great psychedelic experiences — psychedelic, psychotropic, dissociative experiences — definitely allowed me to know what those worlds were like, what those states were like. And I kind of settled on THC as the ultimate of all of the drugs that I’ve done. Especially edibles. I love that feeling of being overwhelmed sometimes, of being too high, and being kind of anxious and figuring out how do I cognitively change what’s happening here. And in doing so, it’s kind of like being in the eye of the hurricane. Instead of being in the hurricane, you kind of move yourself to the eye and then you can feel the intensity of it around you, but you can harness the power. I do like reflecting that feeling sometimes. When I’m performing for people, I always say I want people who are high in the audience to feel like, Whoa, this is awesome. And I want people who aren’t high to feel like they are high. And that’s kind of it.